I don’t write my blog for other wedding photographers, but much of my audience consists of them. Every now and then, I’m tempted to do a post about such-and-such thing that has worked for me or such-and-such resource that is great for beginners. Instead, a few weeks ago (blogging can be a slow process), I started brainstorming an “all my advice” post. Everything I can think of to say to new wedding photographers about what I’ve learned so far. Here goes. And in no particular order.
Work like a dog. There is nothing easy about running a business, getting clients, networking, growing your skillset or juggling responsibilities. You will have to work hard to make all of these things happen. Any of the photographers you hear about whose success “fell in their lap” are lying, or they had access to resources most of us don’t. The rest of us have to work our asses off to make it happen. You’ll have to do the same. Don’t expect success if you don’t put in the time and effort.
Study photography. You can study wedding photography if you want, especially in the beginning when you don’t know what photos of weddings can look like. Get a solid hold of your base skills – exposure triangle, composition, how your camera works, the various qualities of different kinds of light – and then follow your interests. Work on your photography skills at all times. Play games with yourself. I used to and sometimes still do play “what would I do with a bride in this spot?” You can play this anywhere and all you need is your mind. If you had a girl in a big white dress, and you had to photograph her in this alley, this garden, this urban streetcorner, this rural, empty setting, what would you do? Taking those pictures before you need to take those pictures helps a lot. Think about photography even when you’re not holding a camera. It will speed up your growth.
Study marketing. Photography is only a tiny part of this job. Once you have a solid skillset and can take decent photos in any conditions, your business really revolves around every other thing you do – marketing, branding, customer service – the things that are going to set you apart from the next guy over also taking decent photos. Truth is, most people don’t know the difference between good and really great photography. They’re not experts – we are. The images will never “speak for themselves” (cue dissent). That said, the images you choose for your portfolio are critically important. They need to reflect the clients you want to attract. You won’t book any Indian weddings without Indian weddings in your portfolio. Similar for same-sex. Similar for fancy, frou-frou weddings, outdoor weddings, etc. Like attracts like. And, perhaps most importantly, the personalities you show in your portfolio are the personalities you are going to attract as clients. If you’ve looked through my portfolio, you might notice I highlight candidness, joy, intimacy, high-energy. My images are not subtle, and I don’t tend to attract subtle clientele.
Find a voice. Some call this branding but I don’t think that’s helpful. Your voice is the words you use and how many, the types and style of images you show, how you conduct yourself at client meetings, what you wear, which banners you display on your website. Your ideal clients will respond to your voice and reject opposing voices (laid-back vs. every detail considered or “special day” vs. “big party” – how you talk about weddings matters because you want to talk about weddings in the same way your clients do.) How you talk about yourself and your work is very important in determining which clients want to work with you. Talk only to your ideal set. For most of us, it’s someone like ourselves – that’s perfectly ok. Don’t cater to everyone. Have a voice. Don’t be generic.
Study posing. It is much better to take technically poor photographs of your clients looking good than very artsy photographs of your clients looking unattractive (cue further dissent). Every woman on the entire face of the planet wants wedding photos where she looks thin and young. If you can make this happen, you will have happy clients. Study the heck out of posing. Understand which angles make women look thinner and which angles make men look confident and sexy. This does not come easily to most clients (or photographers). You have to tell them what to do.
Talk to your clients while you’re shooting them. It doesn’t matter so much what you say, but it is awkward to be photographed. (And if you haven’t been photographed, get that done right away.) Anything you can do to make people feel comfortable in front of your lens is good. Talking to them is a must. Many people need to be told how to stand, where to put their hands, and need a catalyst for looking cuddly and happy. All of the “joyful” portraits on my blog are because I was yelling stupid things at my clients to make them laugh. If you don’t say anything, they are just going to stand there, or worse, stand there with fake smiles. Keep interacting. This is an important skill that is hard to master.
Take risks when it’s safe to do so. It’s ok to try out a new technique at a wedding, as long as you already have the other shots you need. It’s fine to try things out at engagement sessions, but make sure you are also taking the “newspaper announcement” photo that Mom is going to want on her mantle. Clients appreciate creativity, but they also want “nice” photos of themselves. (Yes, every client. No, your clients are not different. Every single client everywhere wants at least a couple “nice” photos of themselves on their wedding day.) Do not take big risks on wedding days, unless you already have what you need. There are so many opportunities to try out new things when there isn’t so much at stake. If you have exciting new lights to bust out, test them during cocktail hour first or bring them out at the end of the reception when it’s just open dancing. You don’t want to mess up first dance.
Go to every networking event. I still do this. Meeting a wedding planner one time and handing her a card will not get you referred. Meeting her ten times might not get you referred. But consistently showing up to networking events and actually making friends with wedding vendors is how you should be “networking.” It works best when it doesn’t seem like that’s what you’re doing. Once a month, there is a wedding vendor meetup where I go to hang out with my wedding vendor buddies. It’s technically networking, but it’s more like partying with my friends. Knowing a lot of the folks in the local industry is very helpful for both referrals for you and in being able to refer other vendors to your clients (yes, they will ask.) Go to every event, even if you don’t feel like it. Put yourself out there. It’s painful sometimes, but it’s really important for business. Don’t operate in a bubble. There’s so much to be had from having relationships with other vendors (photographers included).
Second shoot as often as possible, in the beginning. Many wedding photographers got their start doing other things – jumping right in (heaven forbid) or associate shooting or the like. I shot something like 30 weddings with other photographers before I really got in the game myself. This prepared me for the flow of a wedding day and allowed me to hone the various skills I need to do good work at these events. Plus, it allowed me to grow my portfolio. In fact, one of the images in my portfolio was taken at the very first wedding I second shot. Can you tell which one it is? I’m sure you can’t. These are invaluable learning experiences. Do good work and study what the other photographer is up to – how they handle themselves, the positions they take for certain shots, how they set up portraits, etc. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) copy anyone directly, but there are a thousand tips you can pick up watching other photographers work. Also, a photographer you have worked for is about a thousand times more likely to recommend you than someone you haven’t worked for. We can only shoot one wedding on each Saturday, and we get lots of inquiries for the same dates – requiring us to refer out those weddings. Don’t skip this step.
Pay off your student loans first. I advise this because I did it and it was so helpful. I was working like a dog (see above) at a full-time job and juggling second shooting every weekend, and then eventually my own weddings on many weekends. I would process at work (gasp) or at night and I had very little free time. And the money piled up. Every extra cent of it went to student loans. As my business bloomed, the loans shrunk. I know folks who have quit their jobs early to pursue full-time wedding photography. It’s courageous, but I also think it’s unwise. Paying off those loans before you lose the full-time job “safety net” provides so much ease of mind. I could even recommend you have an emergency fund set up under you first (I did), but I might be accused of nagging and being overly cautious. No, you will not be able to give your all to your business with a full-time job, especially one you hate, but put your damn nose to the grindstone and bang it out. The harder you work now, the more you can enjoy your business and leisure time later.
Rent until you can buy. I highly recommend renting gear instead of putting an enormous sum on a credit card or jumping into things before you are for sure. Penn/Calumet has closed down shop and they were by far the best resource for the area, but I still think it’s worthwhile to pay borrowlenses or the like to try things out. Especially when you are doing your only wedding gig for a six-month period and the rest is second shooting. I shot on the cropped sensor D80 for an entire year of second shooting before I upgraded. I always recommend photographers understand what’s holding them back about their gear before they upgrade. Because it’s almost never gear. If you’re working hard and you know what it is about your camera that is holding back your work, then is the time to upgrade. Otherwise, stick with lesser gear and own it. That said, you must have backups if you are shooting a wedding solo. Do not go to a wedding with one camera.
Don’t sweat a slow start. A wedding photography business is all about momentum. In the beginning you have nothing. Your website exists in a black hole with no readers and no content. You go to a few networking events, join a few Facebook groups, put your name in all the “available?” posts, and still you see no movement. And then someone picks up on your Craigslist ad. And someone else says their sister’s friend recommended you. Then six months go by with no word at all from anyone at all. This is perfectly normal. You have to work like a dog (yes, again, yes, forever) from all sides to be pulling in clients. At first, none will come. At first, they will be totally wrong for you. And you will learn how to attract the right ones, slowly. It’s a two steps forward one step back type of thing. Expect things to move slowly. It was a good two years for me before I saw any kind of traction. For others it’s longer. Very few get a great start and skyrocket from there. Keep doing all the things – all of them – and you’ll see movement eventually. Don’t get discouraged.
Blog (optional). Optional because other folks do other things that work great for them. If you can’t blog consistently, don’t do it. I blog on delivery – when clients get their files – as opposed to doing a slideshow or in-house session. It’s how my clients see my favorite images first. It also forces me to generate a ton of content for the blog. I have 159 pages of content in this blog – with an average of three posts per page, that means I’ve blogged almost 500 times. Google loves that shit, y’all. I get a ton of inquiries from Google. It’s not my highest-quality inquiry source, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
Ask for what you want. Clients, as I’ve mentioned, are neither experts at weddings or experts at photography. They’re just folks throwing an enormous party with a great deal of time, effort, family relations, money, and reputation on the line. Tell them how to work with you and ask them for what you want. I always ask for the appropriate amount of time for portraits and family photos, a list of family photos, a list of photos that they want to make sure I don’t miss (and I prompt them with clues like “my college roommates” or “my grandmother’s broach”). Don’t leave it to chance. Do the same after the wedding. If you want online reviews, ask your clients for reviews! I can’t tell you how many people have said they “wish” they had more online reviews. Why not just flat-out ask your clients to review you? Don’t expect them to be mind-readers.
Related, set expectations. You can do basically anything you want, as long as you communicate it to your clients beforehand make sure they are on board. You could deliver the entire wedding in black and white. You could show up with five assistants. You could set up blazing reception lights that blind everyone all night. But if your clients are expecting mostly color, one photographer and unobtrusive photography, they are going to be unhappy, regardless of how the photos turn out. Don’t shy away from these conversations. And don’t assume you are on the same page as your clients. If they expect one thing and you deliver another, they will be unhappy. Their expectations may be totally reasonable or they may be crazy. They don’t know into which camp they fall because they’ve never done this before. You, as the expert, have to tell them what to expect from you.
Be legit. Get a CPA, have a lawyer look over your contract, get insured. There are plenty of online lists about how to get everything together for a small business. If you’re in Arlington, check the BizLaunch site. No, this stuff isn’t fun, but it’s completely necessary.
Seth Godin. Brilliant marketer without being a “marketer.” If you read only one thing, ever, about business, make it this guy.
Jasmine Star. She’s a wedding photographer and her images are fine. But what she really excels at is marketing. We have 100% different clients, and that’s great. She was an invaluable resource for me in my early days in terms of understanding where I wanted my business to go and how to talk to my clients specifically (vs. everybody else out there that needs wedding photography.)
CreativeLive. They have so many brilliant and free classes on everything from growing a business to boudoir posing to working with off-camera flash. Watch as many of these as you can and suck it up and pay for a few to reference later.
Succeeding as a Wedding Photography Business. You need to have some wedding work in your Flickr stream to be accepted, but once you are, this is the single most valuable community that I am aware of for understanding every single aspect of the wedding photography business. It was started years ago by complete beginners who are now the “rock stars” of our field. They still pop in and give advice. There is an enormous range of skill level in this group, which always makes for interesting conversations. The archives are a goldmine of quality advice about any subject you can think of. This is the group you need. Also, I’m there daily.
I hate to say it, but Facebook has been very helpful for my business, especially for keeping in touch with other photographers/vendors.
Capital Area Photographers. Hosts monthly get-togethers with great speakers and networking events. Not just for wedding photographers, but all photographers – you can learn from them, too.
DC Metro Photographers. A smaller group, but fairly active. People of all experience points.
Maryland Photographer Ladies.
Virginia Photographer Ladies.
DC/MD/VA Wedding Vendors. Not very active, but worth having in your lineup.
I don’t go to conferences necessarily to “learn.” Truth is, I’ve been at this game a while and of course I pick up some tips and things at the lectures, it’s really more about being inspired and seeing how other people run their own shows. I always come away from these not with a notebook full of lecture notes, but instead pages on pages of ideas for my own business and photography. And that is before I mention the awesome “networking” (read: getting drunk with other photographers and talking trash).
WPPI. The granddaddy – everybody goes to this and it’s enormous and you can spend tons of money and still not meet anybody. I have yet to go, but I want to and I probably will next year… hopefully it doesn’t coincide with Mardi Gras, again.
Canada Photo Convention. A newish contender on the scene. I consider this an SWPB conference, really. I also have not been.
Mystic. Mystic is the only one of these I’ve actually attended and it was well worth it. It’s a smaller group (maybe 150 people) so you actually get to meet most of the people there, including the speakers, who include folks like Sue Bryce and Spencer Lum.
What If Camp.
Where My Business Comes From
I can’t think of a good reason not to share this information, so I am going to share it. I keep meticulous records about where my inquiries come from and if they book or not, so I know which one of my avenues is the most important for bringing in leads and of those, which are the highest “quality” (most likely to book, and the nebulous “most ideal clientele”).
Yelp. Yelp is by far my biggest draw for inquiries. To be perfectly frank, the vast majority of these folks are looking for something I either don’t do or won’t do at their budget. I do get a large number of wedding inquiries from Yelp, but not a large number that are valuing photography (read: they don’t want to pay my prices). Yelp is a great draw for my courthouse niche. It’s worth adding that you won’t see any traction on Yelp without a bunch of great reviews. It’s ok to ask your clients to review you. They’ll almost certainly be happy to do so.
Google. As I mentioned above, I have been blogging consistently for 4+ years now, and I have a ton of content. People get to my site in a million different ways. Apparently there is a method by which you can determine your “rank” for various keywords (like D.C. wedding photographer). I’ve tried these and appeared nowhere in the top 3 pages. I’ve also had people tell me I’m at the top when they do a search. I have no idea how this works and I don’t care. Google inquiries are all over the place – some are really great people who are serious about photography and some are folks who want everything for nothing.
A Practical Wedding. I advertise on a number of sites, and this is by far the best draw both in terms of number of inquiries and in clients that are just amazing to work with. I always tell people it’s extremely niche – if you don’t have a laid-back vibe and don’t just go with what the clients want, this is not the website for you to advertise on. It’s also not cheap. But I love the heck out of my APW couples. They’re always so easygoing and, well, practical.
Offbeat Bride. I started advertising with Offbeat Bride last year and it’s been a pretty good run. I’ve booked a couple of weddings, and of those, they are seriously awesome weddings. But I don’t get a great deal of inquiries from them. Jury’s still out here.
Word of mouth – clients. This is the category that other photographers will tell you is the most important and which is the very hardest to get any traction on until much later in business. I’m just now starting to get consistent referrals from past clients. Each person only knows so many other people and while I trust that my clients want to refer me, it can be that their friends have different tastes or budgets. It’s an important segment of my business but it’s not the most important, honestly.
Word of mouth – other photographers and other vendors. This has traditionally been the most important segment of my business. Because each photographer can only book one wedding on a Saturday, that means all other inquiries they get for that day will be passed on to someone who is available. I still get lots of inquiries this way and they tend to be very good leads. It’s become increasingly common, though, for me to be referred by planners and other vendors – more of my referrals are coming from non-photographer sources than in the past (I take it because as my prices have gone up, other photographers have felt less comfortable passing on my name. Or maybe people have started to think I’m lame.) When a planner recommends you, it comes with a great deal of cache. I will put in a word of caution, though: sucking up to planners is just silly. I tried to “make nice” with planners for ages before I just gave up. And that’s when I realized that I actually had, just by hanging out at networking events and being cool with folks I’m working with, made a bunch of planner friends. Not people I can leech off of – just buddies. Buddies who can help a girl out. And I can refer them as well.
It’s also worth noting that I advertise in a number of other places, and don’t see a big return. United With Love, Capitol Romance and The DC Center have or do all get a chunk of money from me, but I haven’t booked any weddings from them. It’s certainly worthwhile to try out new sources to see what works. I know folks who book tons of weddings from here. It just hasn’t/didn’t work for me. Other people get tons and tons of inquiries from submitting weddings to blogs and “being featured.” I’ve always hated the legwork and bugging my clients for things, so I almost never submit. Other folks have mailing lists, make physical products, create alliances with dress shops, bakeries, etc. etc. etc. There are so many ways to bring in business. This is just what has worked for me.
Promotional video. A million years ago, at one of the first networking events I went to, I met a successful photographer/videographer, who told me that if I really wanted to stand out, I should make a video. It was an offhand comment and I don’t think I’ve met up with him again since (hi Armin, in case you’re out there!) But it stuck with me, and when I worked with a videographer I really liked, I asked him to make me a promo video. It’s over three years old now, but that video is so helpful in communicating who I am and how I work. I think it really gives a sense of what I’m like in person, and gives my potential clients confidence about the person who will show up on their wedding day. Most of my clients comment on it.
Pricing. This topic is incredibly fraught. Lots of folks get really upset at rock bottom photographers. Its’ never bothered me. I do not compete with a $1k, $2k, even $3k photographer. We have very different clientele, looking for completely different services. There will always be folks who “just want a few photos” and who will never pay my rates. That’s ok! Obviously I don’t think everybody should hire an experienced professional. Some lack the budget; others just don’t care. It’s ok. There are eight million weddings in DC every year. I only need to book 25 to stay afloat. My advice is to charge as much as you need to (yes, I realize that’s vague). Charge as much as you need to – to make it worth your time and effort and to pay for the things you need. At first you will charge less, later more. Don’t sweat competitors. Lowering your prices is almost never the answer. If people don’t value your work, it’s almost certainly a problem with visibility, voice or the work itself. I guarantee you there is room in the market for the price you are trying to get.
Phew! I will be shocked if anyone has read this far. But if you did, feel free to ask any questions and I’ll be happy to answer or talk about any damn other subject you could possibly be interested in. And please feel free to disagree! Most of us are sole proprietors, operating in our mini universes and so many different things work for different people. It’s a good thing.